Three years ago, when Maryam Henderson-Uloho walked out of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, where she’d served 12 years on charges of obstruction of justice, she struggled to find work. She couldn’t open a bank account. To support herself, she traversed the streets of Arabi, Louisiana, collecting things people had left on the sidewalk as trash, cleaning them up, and reselling them for a profit. When she got her first $40, “I invested it in myself,” she says at a recent event in New York City.
And by “myself,” Henderson-Uloho means: in helping others like her. While inside, she grew to understand that “prison exists to break you,” she says. “There’s no way a human being can exist inside a 6 by 9 prison cell, year after year, and not be affected.” Henderson-Uloho had a successful career as a real estate investor and housing developer, but the justice system in the U.S. is set up to render experience before prison obsolete. Once you have a conviction and time on your record, that’s all that people and employers tend to see.
Unless, Henderson-Uloho realized, they understood what it meant to experience incarceration, and understood that it shouldn’t define the rest of a person’s life. She used her experience, and her growing resale enterprise, to set up Sister Hearts, a thrift store and re-entry program in her home of Arabi, where she houses and employs formerly incarcerated men and women to help them gain work experience and rebuild their lives. The shop brings in five-figure revenues each month, and Henderson-Uloho is looking to open a second location, maybe in New Orleans.
Henderson-Uloho’s story, and her 4,000-square-foot shop in Arabi, is the subject of a new original short film produced by Square, which premiered in New York City on March 21. Through its Dreams series, the payments company is highlighting entrepreneurs in America who have overcome adversity–from blight in a forgotten Iowa town to disinvestment in Native American communities–to create economic opportunity. In addition to seeking out such entrepreneurs to equip with Square technology, the company is telling their stories to encourage further investment and support for people trying to make an impact in their own communities.
For Sarah Friar, Square’s chief financial officer, meeting Henderson-Uloho was eye-opening. At the launch event for Sister Hearts in New York, Friar says that previously, incarceration and its effects was not a topic about which she had in-depth knowledge. It’s set up that way. The justice system disconnects people from society, and its impact on peoples’ lives extends far beyond when they walk out of the prison doors. It’s far from common practice for large, wealthy employers like Square to hire formerly incarcerated people, let alone uplift their stories.
But maybe, says Topeka K. Sam, director of the Dignity for Incarcerated Women program at #Cut50, an organization dedicated to reducing incarceration, it should be. Sam, speaking alongside Friar and Henderson-Uloho, says that it would benefit companies to expand their definition of diversity to include not just a variety of races and gender identities, but also people who have interacted with the justice system.
Without support networks like Sister Hearts–which are often created by people who have experienced incarceration themselves–people coming out of prison have very few resources for economic empowerment, Sam says. “So many women come home and they go into shelter systems, or back into abusive relationships so they can have a roof over their head,” she adds. It’s difficult for them to access financial resources and basic needs like insurance.
Sister Hearts shows the potential for community-building and economic empowerment to transform the re-entry experience for people coming out of prison. To have an employer like Square recognize that potential hopefully signifies that companies are waking up to the need to do something to help the approximately 9 million people who are released from prison each year. As justice-reform advocates advance policies to reduce incarceration and harsh sentencing, Henderson-Uloho has an idea for how those not affected by the system. “Wherever you work, show this film,” she says. “Help other people feel the importance, that we can all help to stop this cycle of incarceration and abuse.”